An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country by Susan Rosenberg

Susan Rosenberg is many things: Jewish, lesbian, political activist, released convict, and writer of the memoir An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country. Born in 1955 in Manhattan, Rosenberg became an activist in high school. She describes the groups for Black liberation, feminism, and the fight for Puerto Rican independence. Rosenberg isn’t lightly involved; she was indicted for being part of the group that helped Assata Shakur (see my review of Assata: An Autobiography) escape from prison and involvement in the famous 1981 Brink’s truck robbery that left two dead (it’s quite dramatic if you want to read about it).

Wanted by the FBI, Rosenberg went underground for a few years before coming up to help another activist transport a twenty-foot U-haul trailer filled with dynamite, guns, and fake IDs. They were caught. At her trial, she and her co-defendant were “. . . each convicted of eight counts of conspiracy to possess and transport explosives, guns, and false identification across state lines. We were each sentenced to fifty-eight years in federal prison for possession of weapons and explosives. It was the longest sentence ever give for a possession offense.”

If you’re like me, you’re glad someone transporting such dangerous items was being sent to prison. However, at the time Rosenberg felt she was rising against a tyrannical government, informed by the political thought of the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. She writes, “I felt that we lived in a country that loved violence and that we had to meet it on its own terms.” Interestingly, her lawyers noted that a “possession offense” typically garnered a five-year prison sentence, thus Rosenberg and her legal team fought for her release so adamantly.

And therein lies the crux of An American Radical: the United States government treating a Rosenberg like a political prisoner rather than a citizen convicted of a crime. Her lawyer wrote, “My client’s 1985 sentence of fifty-eight years for a possessory offense was sixteen times longer than the average sentence for such offenses. Had she been sentenced under the new guidelines she could have received months rather than a lifetime.” As Rosenberg aged, she no longer agreed with her younger self’s feelings about how to engage in activism, so she wonders how to live out a prison sentence that’s meant to punish her for something she no longer believes. Good question.

It’s not just that Rosenberg was in prison, though. Her memoir educates readers, walking them through her experience in an experimental prison — she was one of the first inmates ever housed there — in Kentucky. The facility had sixteen cells in a basement away from natural light that had bright fluorescent lights on 24/7 in cells, inmates could not have any possessions, and they were watched and strip searched (for what, you might ask) regularly. The facility was shut down for human rights abuses in 1988.

Rosenberg was moved to Danbury, made famous by Piper Kerman and Orange is the New Black (see my review). While Kerman made Danbury sound like a way-not-cool girls college dorm, Rosenberg noted the high number of inmates dying of HIV/AIDs, and cancer due to poor health care. To keep her sense of humanity she became a counselor, handing out information on how HIV/AIDs is transmitted. She began writing fiction and poetry, including these lines:

I have met Death in the cold of this prison.
She arrives in a multitude of forms

The death of women around her from a virus isn’t the only marker of the time period in American Radical. During the Gulf War in 1991, Rosenberg notes many corrections officers have ties to the military and treat prisoners like the enemy because many were minorities (Hispanic, Black, Jewish, lesbian) that caused “problems” for America. Shakedowns during which personal items like toothbrushes and books were thrown out, and racial slurs yelled at inmates, became more common as tensions rose, until one day a correctional officer:

. . . got on the PA system and yelled, “Listen up, convicts, we have the constitutional right to take you out to the recreation yard and shoot you all in a time of war. This has been a federal directive since the Civil War, since you will likely aid the enemy to obtain your freedom. We have the president’s order to take you out first.”

Each marker of history, from war to illegal activism to who is president, informs readers of how our culture and climate shape what happens to us. As I read American Radical, all I could think of was the political and health disaster that was 2020, up to January 6th. Rosenberg acknowledges, “I had believed that if voting did not work, I had to build illegal alternatives to prepare for the day when enough people recognized the change.” And if the people from January 6th felt similarly to Rosenberg, did they not follow the same call to action that she did forty years before?

Susan Rosenberg’s memoir can be a tough read because she leaves no room to soften her experiences. A cavity search that tears her body to punish her reads akin to rape. Poor health care in the facility leads to her missing and rotting teeth. Attempts to build relationships — friendship, love — read awkwardly because they are molded by restrictions and watchful eyes. While Rosenberg convincingly writes that she was tortured, I failed to feel too much sympathy about her conviction from her crimes. An entire U-haul of assault weapons and dynamite aren’t harmless, whether Rosenberg was convinced no one would get hurt or not. And so American Radical is not yet another “I was treated so badly!” prison memoir, but instead a deep dive into how prisoners are handled out of the public eye regardless of American law. If you’re interested in political activism and the U.S. prison system, Rosenberg supplies the goods.

19 comments

  1. Good review Melanie, it’s a difficult subject to be balanced about. Especially now in the US when the carrying of weapons of war is so common, including attacks on state and federal (what do you call them? I would say parliaments). I’m four years older than Rosenberg, was at university during the anti-Vietnam war years, was a member of SDS and was sorry that there was no Spanish Civil War for me to join The International Brigade. I trained for a year to use a rifle and studied Arabic with the intention of joining revolutionary movements abroad. But in the end I never did, and I was never jailed for being a draft resister.
    But still, I admire Rosenberg. I can imagine that there was a time before the US’s defeat in Vietnam that it felt like Nixon and Kissinger were out of control, that there was no way forward but armed struggle.
    In Australia we elected a reformist government in 1972 (which many believe was illegally terminated by the CIA in 1975) and that marked the beginning end of radical socialism here.

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    • The part that struck me about Rosenberg’s and Assata’s style of resistance is they were not afraid of violence at all. Shooting police, robbing people who work for corporations, and it’s not even explained to whom Rosenberg was delivering an entire moving truck of guns, bombs, and fake IDs. Me, in 2021, can’t see that as anything but irresponsible and dangerous. However, I didn’t grow up in the same era, but I believe you when you say that Rosenberg’s approach to resistance makes sense. I think of the way the members of the Black Panther Party armed themselves to exercise their 2nd Amendment Rights, and many were famously gunned down by police in their sleep. If they’re going to be killed execution-style, of course they would be armed, right? But now, I see the mass protests of the people, especially the murder of George Floyd, which led to protests across the globe. His murderer was charged guilty, and a number of large police services have had their funding rerouted to mental health organizations. So far, based on what the mayors, etc. are saying, defunding–a term I don’t like; it’s basically reallocating to more skilled people–it’s working.

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  2. This sounds like an interesting though heavy read. I struggle with stories like this because I could probably agree with some of her beliefs but could never get on board with the methods and, as you say, someone with such items probably should be in prison. Yet the prison system is so broken that it’s really not a solution at all.

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    • And before she was caught with the moving trailer, she had been living underground for a few years because she had a connection to a robbery that ended up with someone dead. I suppose at the end of the day, I disagree with Rosenberg’s ideologies (at least, the ones she had as a young person), but felt that her book humanized those who are tortured in prison, and that their convictions and crimes have no bearing on humane treatment.

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        • You’re not wrong. She’s reflecting the whole time and acknowledges that the person she was as a young activist had different methods of working toward justice and peace, and while she still believes in the same goals, the methods to get there are not the same.

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  3. Yes, this sounds like an interesting if quite heavy read. People who are amassing resources for significant violence in order to achieve their political aims probably should be in prison – but there’s no excuse for how Rosenberg has been treated, so the prison system also needs reform.

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  4. Hmm I can see being torn in a few different directions with this one. How/why do you punish someone for the beliefs they once held, but no longer do? How is treating people inhumanely inside the prison walls going to help society outside of those walls? It’s all so complicated, but I agree with you that transporting a uhaul worth of weapons should be punished, that’s simply not ok, no matter what your intentions. I applaud you for reading this prison memoirs though, they are important to read, we can’t just shut people in prison and try to forget about them, even if it’s the easier thing to do.

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    • I’ve read several prison memoirs now. They’re all quite different, but they all speak about brutality at the hands of correctional officers, especially verbal abuse that’s completely degrading. Which, I don’t get. We have loads of studies about how treating prisoners humanely actually makes it loads safer for both prisoners AND officers. By being a bully, a guard is making his/her own job harder.

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  5. Sounds too harrowing a read for me, but I agree with previous comments that the prison system is inhumane and doesn’t accomplish anything (except for making private prison owners money.) At least they shut down the experimental prison in KY – yikes.

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